Politics & Policy

‘Proportional’ Response

North Korean troops on parade in Pyongyang
We are simply lowering the price of aggression.

Since when has it been considered smart to tell your enemies what your plans are? 

Yet there on the front page of the April 8 New York Times was a story about how unnamed “American officials” were planning a “proportional” response to any North Korean attack. This was spelled in an example: If the North Koreans “shell a South Korean island that had military installations” then the South Koreans would retaliate with “a barrage of artillery of similar intensity.”

Whatever the merits or demerits of such a plan, what conceivable purpose can be served by telling the North Koreans in advance that they need fear nothing beyond a tit for tat? All that does is lower the prospective cost of aggression. 

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When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, should we have simply gone over and bombed a harbor in Japan? Does anyone think that this response would have stopped Japanese aggression? Or stop other nations from taking shots at the United States, when the price was a lot lower than facing massive retaliation?  

Back before the clever new notion of “proportional” response became the vogue, our response to Pearl Harbor was ultimately Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Japan has not attacked or even threatened anybody since then. Nor has any war broken out anywhere that is at all comparable with World War II.  

Which policy is better? There was a time when we followed the ancient adage “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The track record of massive retaliation easily beats that of the more sophisticated-sounding proportional response. 

Back in ancient times, when Carthage attacked Rome, the Romans did not respond “proportionally.” They wiped Carthage off the face of the earth. That may have had something to do with the centuries of what was called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace.  

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, the British simply sent troops to take the islands back — despite American efforts to dissuade Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from doing even that. 

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For more than a century since the British settled in the Falkland Islands, Argentina had not dared to invade them. Why?  

Because, until recent times, an Argentine attack on a British settlement would be risking not only a British counterattack there, but the danger of a major British attack on Argentina itself. That could mean leaving Buenos Aires in ruins. 

Today, Argentina’s government is again making threatening noises about the Falkland Islands. Why not? The most the Argentines have to fear is a “proportional” response to aggression — and the Obama administration has already urged “negotiations” instead of even that. When threats are rewarded, why not make threats, when there are few dangers to fear?  

Can you think of any war prior to Iraq and Afghanistan where the United States announced to the world when it planned to pull its troops out? What has this accomplished? “By their fruits ye shall know them.” What have been the fruits? 

First of all, this constant talk in Washington about not only pulling out, but announcing in advance what their pullout timetable was, meant that Iraqi political leaders knew that a powerful Iran was on their border permanently, while Washington was a long way away and intended to stay away.  

Should we be surprised that the Iraqi government has increasingly come to pay more attention to what Iran wants than to what Washington wants? Once more, vast numbers of American lives have been sacrificed winning victories on the battlefield that the politicians in Washington then frittered away and turned into defeat politically.  

What about other countries around the world who are watching what the American government is doing? Many have to decide whether they want to cooperate with the United States, and risk the wrath of our enemies, or cooperate with our enemies and risk nothing. 

There is no need to respond to a North Korean artillery barrage by wiping North Korea off the map. But there is also no need to reassure the North Koreans in advance that we won’t.  

What announcing the doctrine of “proportional” response does is lower the price of aggression. Why would we want to do that? 

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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